The political dilemma facing Lebanese Christians.

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 8 2009 6:15 PM

Why Would Lebanon's Christians Side With Iran?

Because they're afraid of Saudi Arabia.

 Lebanese Christians. Click image to expand.
Lebanon's Maronite Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir

In Sunday's elections in Lebanon, the local Christian population split its vote between the pro-Western government and an opposition party backed by Syria and Iran. Why would so many Lebanese Christians reject the U.S.-backed politicians?

They're more afraid of Saudi Arabia than they are of Iran. The influence of foreign governments is unusually strong in Lebanese politics, and the governing and opposition coalitions each have their own network of backers. Although those in power today are often identified as "pro-Western," Saudi Arabia wields just as much influence within the governing March 14 coalition, as do the United States and France. Many Christians prefer these benefactors to Syria, Iran, and Qatar—the major supporters of the opposition. But others fear the potential Islamization of Lebanon by the Saudis.

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Sectarianism has been enshrined in the Lebanese political system since its independence. In 1932, the French colonial government conducted a census, determining that Maronite Christians represented a slight majority in Lebanon. When the country won its independence in 1943, parliamentary seats were allocated based on the 1932 census figures: six Christian representatives for every five Muslim representatives. The 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended the Lebanese Civil War, adjusted the balance to 50-50. The highest offices are also distributed among Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites. (This confessional system makes it virtually impossible for any nonsectarian political movement, such as the Lebanese Communist Party, to gain significant power.)

No one really knows how many Christians are living in Lebanon today. The government has refused to conduct a census, because the results might upset the fragile Taif Agreement and plunge the country back into civil war. However, it is a virtual certainty that Christians are overrepresented in the current government. The CIA guesses they make up 39 percent of the population, but they have been leaving in large numbers over the past few years.

The shrinking number of Lebanese Christians animates their political behavior. Some argue that a strong Western presence in Lebanon, along with a sound renunciation of Khomeneist Iran, will reassure potential Christian émigrés and prevent further bleeding. Others contend that the Wahhabist regime in Saudi Arabia, which has substantial ties to the powerful Hariri family that leads the governing coalition, will seek to push more traditional Islam on cosmopolitan Lebanon and drive Christians away.

The wild card among Lebanese Christians is mercurial Gen. Michel Aoun. Aoun rose to power in 1988 and fashioned himself a liberator, rejecting the Taif Agreement and fighting the Syrian army, which then dominated the country. After a series of political and military defeats, Aoun was exiled to France. He returned in 2005 and surprised the country by aligning himself with the Syrian-backed political parties. Aoun argued that Syria was no longer the enemy after withdrawing its troops from Lebanon in 2005. He implied that Christians should join political forces with Hezbollah, by far the most organized political force in Lebanon, to ensure their long-term security. While Hezbollah and its allies hoped that the personal appeal of Aoun would sway large numbers of Christians, it appears his influence has become limited to a core of older Christians who remember him as a hero.

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Explainer thanks As'ad AbuKhalil of California State University Stanislaus.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.